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How to do keyword research - Find the right words to target

Keyword research is the foundational starting point for any successful SEO strategy. Without understanding the specific words and phrases your target audience uses when searching online, even the most herculean optimisation efforts will inevitably miss the mark. 

To make matters worse, knowing where to start with SEO is a bit like trying to find the smallest needle in a giant haystack. But worry not, because this guide walks you through a proven step-by-step methodology for conducting thorough keyword research to drive your organic growth.

Let’s get ranking. 

How to do keyword research: the starting point for SEO success

As far as SEO goes, keyword research serves as the first step in the content creation process. It involves identifying the specific words, phrases and queries that your target customers use when seeking solutions related to your business’s products or services.

By nailing your keyword strategy and understanding this precise search language, you can create content that directly satisfies user intent and demand. This intimate alignment between your pages and the terms people are actively searching is what drives qualified traffic, heightens on-site engagement and ultimately maximises conversions. This is why keyword research is important; it ensures your content aligns with the audience's language, search intent and needs, leading to organic rankings, valuable traffic and business growth.

In contrast, a haphazard or undisciplined approach to keyword research results in content that misses the mark. Your pages may be optimised with irrelevant terms, attracting volumes of useless traffic that will never convert. Or, even worse, you fail to show up at all for the many lucrative keyword opportunities available within your niche.

The importance of keyword research in digital marketing

Consumer preferences and behaviours are constantly evolving, and effective keyword research for SEO has become an integral part of successful marketing strategies across industries.

The primary function of keyword research is to uncover valuable insights into your audience’s needs, interests and search patterns. Good keyword research allows you to:

  • Identify new product or service opportunities aligning with demand
  • Ensure high-quality, purchase-intent traffic reaches your site
  • Extract invaluable data to refine or expand your offerings
  • Adapt your SEO strategy proactively as demand fluctuates
  • Establish your brand’s presence in untapped or emerging niches
  • Get more bang for your marketing buck through precision targeting

Good keyword research helps you understand your audience’s language, behaviours and the problems they’re trying to solve online. Armed with these insights, you can craft content and optimise your digital presence accordingly for maximum relevance and impact.

8 types of keywords in SEO

Not all keywords carry the same weight or utility when it comes to search engine optimization and digital marketing objectives. Understanding the different types of keywords and their associated user intents is necessary for aligning your content appropriately. Solid keyword research is a crucial part of search engine optimisation, helping websites rank organically in search engine results pages by creating content based on relevant search terms.

Here are some of the main keyword categories to be aware of:

Short-tail keywords

These are broadly defined, one to three-word phrases like "email marketing" or "wireless headphones." While extremely high in search volume, short-tails face immense competition and can be challenging to rank for without considerable authority.

Long-tail keywords

At the opposite end of the spectrum, long-tail keywords consist of lengthier four-plus word phrases that read more like full sentences or questions ("best email marketing software for startups"). They have lower search volumes but higher buyer intent and easier rankings.

Informational keywords

Structured around education or preliminary research, these words and phrases (like "how to clean wireless headphones") indicate users looking to explore topics before making a purchase decision. They’re great for early funnel nurturing.

Navigational keywords

When users search for specific brands, products or company names directly, those queries involve navigational keywords (e.g. "HubSpot email marketing"). These are important for solidifying branded search visibility.

Commercial keywords

Also referred to as buyer keywords, these terms contain qualifiers like "best", "review" or pricing indicators, signalling users researching before a potential purchase ("best email marketing software reviews").

Transactional keywords

These are the moneymakers—terms featuring words like "buy," "purchase," "discount," etc. that indicate a user's clear intention and readiness to make a transaction or conversion.

Local keywords

For businesses with a geographic element, local keywords (like "Dover email marketing agencies") focused on capturing local or regional search demand are highly valuable.

Question keywords

Using words like "how," "what," "where," "why," these queries indicate the user has a very specific question they need answered ("what is email marketing?"). Think of them as being primed for authoritative guides and tutorials.

Understanding these different keyword type intents allows you to map content assets to satisfy user needs and advance them through the marketing funnel appropriately based on where they are in the buying journey.

Finding your focus keywords: where to begin

Now that you understand the significance and core categories of keywords, the next step is to start building out your own targeted keyword lists through SEO keyword research. But where exactly do you begin?

Identifying your niche

Before any actual keyword research, first gain absolute clarity around the specific niche or market you're operating within. Take a step back and define:

  • The specific industry, products or services you're involved in
  • The key demographics and psychographics of your target customers
  • Any unique selling propositions or differentiators you offer
  • The core jobs, pain points or needs you're aiming to satisfy for them

Having this level of hyper-specific positioning allows you to start with relevant keywords out of the gate, rather than using overly broad, irrelevant terms.

Recognising customer language

One of the most common mistakes businesses make is using industry jargon or internal company lingo when formulating keyword lists, rather than the actual verbiage customers use themselves.

To avoid these pitfalls, invest time studying the authentic voice and phrasing of your customers:

  • Read reviews, forums and social comments to spot common words on sites like Reddit and Quora
  • Conduct voice-of-customer interviews asking how they search
  • Send out surveys gathering the common terms and slang they use

The more you immerse yourself in the raw, unfiltered language of your audience, the more authentic and valuable your targeted keyword choices will become.

Crafting your keyword strategy: a structured approach

By now you likely have a jumbled list of hundreds (or thousands) of potential keyword ideas swirling in your mind. But not having an overarching plan for how to organise and prioritise those terms is a surefire path to chaos. That’s where building a cohesive keyword strategy, utilising a keyword research tool like Google Ads, Ahrefs' Keywords Explorer, or WordStream's Free Keyword Tool, comes in.

Prioritise keywords based on goals

It's worth mapping out specifically what business objectives, conversion goals or KPIs you're hoping each group of keywords will drive. Some terms may be ideal for brand awareness, while others feed prospects directly into the funnel, and some are focused purely on revenue or sales metrics.

Bucketing your keywords based on these high-level goals allows you to streamline and systematise how you prioritise, optimise and measure them accordingly.

Balancing keyword types 

Within any well-rounded keyword strategy, you'll need a healthy balance and variation of the various keyword categories covered earlier. This means including:

  • A mixture of head terms for visibility and long-tails for specificity
  • A blend of informational and transactional keywords
  • Generous portions of branded, local and geo-targeted phrases
  • Plenty of common question and interrogative keyword opportunities

Developing a comprehensive, mixed keyword portfolio means you have all the necessary bases covered to capture demand from every angle.

Investigating search intent: aligning content with user needs

One of the most underrated aspects of modern keyword research is accounting for search intent—the specific reasons and motivations behind each query someone makes. But don’t ignore this, as it can have a significant impact on your keyword research success. 

See, Google's undying aim is to provide users with the most useful, relevant and gratifying results for their search as possible. If your content or optimisation tactics fail to align with the underlying intent behind a keyword, you'll struggle to earn rankings and visibility no matter how much tech SEO wizardry you employ.

Understanding common search intent categories will allow you to map each keyword appropriately:

  • Informational intent. Users are seeking knowledge, answers and details on a particular topic. Content should be educational and thorough.
  • Navigational intent. They want to locate a specific website or page, so user-friendly navigation, structured URLs and clear internal linking matter most.
  • Commercial intent. These queries indicate active research for an upcoming purchase, so authoritative product information, reviews and persuasive deal content is ideal.
  • Transactional intent. This is when users are ready to take action and convert or make a transaction, so features like pricing details, checkout flows and conversion funnels are fundamental to your success. 

Mapping your keywords to their proper search intent is the aim if you want to satisfy the needs and desires behind each user's search. Get this right, and you'll earn unbreakable loyalty and SEO wins. Get it wrong, and your traffic is filled with worthless bounces and missed opportunities.

Tools of the trade: best keyword research tools

While interpreting intent and consumer search behaviour can seem daunting, keyword research has advanced from a tedious manual slog into a finely tuned science. Thanks to a crop of powerful modern keyword tools, generating data, metrics, and insights on any given keyword set is easier than ever.

Google's Ads

Formerly, Google Keyword Planner, and originally intended for paid search campaigns, Google Ads also provides invaluable data on search volumes, projections and adjacent keyword ideas perfect for SEO research.

Ubersuggest, Keyword.io and others 

Some slick freemium platforms offer a solid suite of keyword research and suggestion tools. Features like keyword and topic exploration, SERP analysis, tracking and more allow you to create workflows without spending an arm and a leg. These tools are especially useful if you’re just starting out in the world of keyword research. 

Moz keyword explorer 

Moz is one of the industry's most trusted and comprehensive premium keyword research platforms. Its database uses massive datasets and AI processing to unearth lucrative long-tail gems and opportunities others miss.

Semrush Keyword Magic Tool 

Semrush is an ultra-fast utility for visualising keyword trends, mapping out intent and competition levels, and rapidly uncovering suggestions you won't find anywhere else—all with slick segmentation features and views.

KWFinder by Mangools 

This intuitive keyword solution helps you identify and "hunt" low-competition opportunities that map to your niche and specific criteria. KWFinder includes cool features like suggestions by search metric, competitiveness tracking over time and more.

No matter your budget or SEO maturity, there's no shortage of smart, user-friendly tools available to bolster your keyword research game. Combine them with sound manual analysis and you're well on your way to cracking the SEO game.

Navigating keyword metrics: understanding the data

Modern keyword research platforms offer a wealth of actionable data, reports and metrics to dissect any term or keyword idea under the sun. But with all this information at your fingertips, knowing what signals and data points actually matter most is important.

Using Google Search Console can also help in monitoring search volume and trends effectively.

Here are some of the metrics that should be top-of-mind:

Search volume and trends

How popular or in-demand is a given keyword across different time periods? Keying into trends and average monthly search volume data helps you gauge overall opportunity size, seasonality factors and realistic traffic expectations.

Competition and keyword difficulty

There’s no sense chasing highly competitive "gold rush" keywords if you're just starting out. But that doesn't mean ignoring them altogether. Focus first on more realistic lower-hanging fruit until resources allow you to start tackling harder terms.

Cost-per-click and commercial data 

For keywords with buyer or transaction intent, assessing estimated cost-per-click and other paid search metrics can reveal invaluable insights about a term's business viability and potential return on investment.

Keyword listing and rankings 

Use content explorer and research tools to see how you and your competitors currently stack up for a given term. This will show you opportunities to seize some low-hanging fruit or ways to leapfrog stagnant rankings.

Search intent review 

Finally, always review intent data for each keyword again to validate that your planned content assets and pages align well with what users are actually looking for and needing.

With active mastery and intuitive knowledge of these major metrics and data points, you'll quickly develop an instinct for separating the high-opportunity focus keywords from the potentially wasteful time-sinks.

SEO keywords in action: how to target and optimise

At this point, you've put in the hard yards to thoroughly research, vet and prioritise an optimised list of high-impact targeted keywords.

Now it's time to execute—strategically weaving these terms into your site's architecture, content assets and on-page elements to reinforce relevance and rankings.

On-page SEO optimisations 

On every applicable page, you'll want to include your target keywords and semantic variations naturally throughout:

  • Page titles and headers
  • Body content and image alt text
  • URLs and meta descriptions
  • Strategic internal links and page copy

The key is using these terms prominently but seamlessly to signal relevance to search engines, not cramming keywords at the expense of quality/user experience.

Content hub and topic cluster build-out

Rather than piecemeal optimisations of individual pages, create authoritative content hubs that provide comprehensive coverage of a full keyword topic or semantic cluster around your products or solutions.

Long-form guides, tutorials, glossaries and multimedia labs make perfect centrepieces for these hyper-focused hubs that rank incredibly well for highly valuable terms.

Internal linking optimisation

Your website's internal linking architecture and strategy should use optimised internal link anchor text to funnel visitors gracefully between pages and core pieces of content.

Use your keyword lists to map out strategic internal linking paths that simultaneously enhance the user experience and search relevance.

Content promotion and off-page SEO

On-page optimisation is just the start—packaging up your optimised pillar content pieces and deploying them through channels like:

  • Guest posting on authoritative external sites (earning backlinks)
  • Email campaigns, newsletters and subscriber outreach
  • Influencer collaborations or seeding on communities

This multi-channel distribution reinforces your domain's relevance for core topics and visibility for your targeted terms in search.

Advanced keyword tactics: beyond the basics

The above strategies represent a solid baseline and fundamentals for properly targeting your keywords across your digital presence. But when it comes to how to do keyword research, an extra sprinkling of SEO magic dust helps. Here are a few more advanced techniques and keyword research tactics to consider.

Semantic keyword exploration 

With tools like LSIGraph or SEMrush's free SEO Content Template, you can easily build out handy lists of semantically related keywords to include in your content hubs and pages for extra relevance.

By clustering these semantically linked terms around your core targets, you're reinforcing topical comprehensiveness in search algorithms' eyes.

Trendspotting with Google Trends

This 100% free utility from Google itself allows you to see constantly updating insights into emerging keyword trends, viral search behaviours and more. Staying on the pulse helps you catch traffic waves before competitors.

Mining forums and communities 

Don't sleep on niche communities like Reddit subforums, Facebook Groups, etc. These are real goldmines for extracting super-niche keyword ideas straight from the voice-of-customer and monitoring language trends.

Revisiting and refreshing regularly

Consumer search behaviour is fluid. Your most valuable keywords today may become irrelevant in the future as demand shifts or new product launches and trends take over.

Safeguarding against this requires committing to an always-on keyword research cadence. Continually analyse performance data, run new seed keyword extraction exercises and remain adaptable to maximise relevance.

Keeping score: tracking keyword rankings and performance

Your high-impact keywords are now fully weaponised across your site and promotion activities. Now, the final all-important step is setting up systems to monitor your performance and measure results over time.

By integrating top-tier SEO tracking platforms like Semrush, Moz, Ahrefs and the like into your tech stack, you can keep constant vigils on the metrics that matter most, such as:

Organic rankings and SERP performance 

Of course, active tracking of where pages and content rank for your targeted keywords is job number one. But also watch for additional SERP features like knowledge panels, featured snippets and other elements commanding visibility. 

Organic traffic and audience data 

While rankings only tell part of the story, the real goal is understanding and improving tangible metrics like organic sessions, average session duration, engagement rates and bounce rates. This data reveals the true fruits of your keyword labour.

Search intent revisited

Even if rankings are top notch, continually validate that users are engaging with the pages and content you drive them to in an intended way. Misalignment between intent and experience leads to wasted traffic.

Goal tracking and revenue attribution 

For your truly mission-critical keywords, the ability to connect them directly to downstream lead gen, sales conversions and organic revenue figures is invaluable for measuring accurate ROI. Track everything obsessively.

SEO is a cyclical, data-driven process, not a one-and-done project. Infusing your keyword strategies with feedback systems and constantly evolving lets you expand your search visibility, traffic and revenue opportunities indefinitely.

What role will AI play in keyword research and ranking?

AI is poised to transform how we approach keyword research and search rankings over the coming years. Expect a fundamental shift in the entire SEO game as AI's proliferation requires us to level up our skills and processes across the board.

Let's break down exactly where AI's influence will be felt most prominently:

AI in keyword research

1. Automation and Efficiency. One of AI's big superpowers is automating otherwise tedious, repetitive tasks—and keyword research is the perfect candidate. Cutting-edge AI tools can ingest and process massive datasets, identifying hyper-relevant keywords, predicting performance metrics and suggesting strategic optimisations at scale. This frees up human SEOs to reallocate their time toward higher-value strategic work rather than mundane data wrangling.

2. Understanding User Intent. We know that user intent and mapping to underlying search motivations is everything in our modern SEO reality. Well, AI is taking intent-oriented keyword research to mind-blowing new depths. By using natural language processing capabilities, AI models can break down semantic relationships, interpret contextual nuances and hone in on the precise user needs behind any given query with terrifying accuracy.

3. Predictive Analysis. AI doesn't just analyse and surface relevant keywords—it's powerful enough to predict and forecast trends before they emerge. Sophisticated machine learning algorithms can model out endless hypothetical scenarios to make data-driven predictions on things like: 

  • Keyword growth or decline trajectories
  • Search demand shifting to new areas
  • Evolving language and phrasing changes

SEOs infused with this predictive edge can prep their strategies and be first out the gate when new opportunities strike.

4. Personalisation. Tired of one-size-fits-all generalised keyword strategies? AI can dynamically generate hyper-personalised keyword recommendations tailored at the individual user level based on their:

  • Location and demographic data
  • Search history and online behaviour
  • Page interactions and previous site visits

This granular behavioural data will fuel creepily accurate user profiles for precision-guided keyword targeting to satisfy any level of intent or funnel stage.

AI in search engine ranking

AI is also changing the way we view search results. The likes of Google’s AI Overviews are still in their early stages, but other search engines like Perplexity have given us a peek into what the future of search may look like. 

1. Enhanced Search Algorithms. We know that search engine algorithms like Google's RankBrain and BERT are becoming increasingly AI-powered to improve relevance and satisfy user intent. This means traditional spammy SEO tactics may well no longer fly, and savvy AI and machine learning strategies will be required to rank.

2. Content Optimisation. Adding AI into the content optimisation workflow also has potential serious ranking benefits. AI models can scan and suggest improvements to enhance relevance signals across meta tags, headers, copy elements and more. They'll also recommend ways to maximise engagement metrics like dwell time and click-through rates, which heavily influence SEO performance.

3. User Experience. Part and parcel with optimising for engagement is applying AI to tailor rich, personalised and contextually relevant user experiences on sites—from behaviorally-targeted recommendations to lightning-fast chatbots. These satisfaction-boosting features lift critical UX ranking factors and stickiness.

4. Predictive SEO. AI is the missing link that enables us to shift from reactive to proactive SEO. Machine learning models can consume and synthesise endless data points across your market, audience, competitors and emerging SERPs. This 360-degree prescience allows you to foresee future algorithmic updates, visual shifts, volatility and opportunities well beforehand.

5. Ethical Considerations. Of course, with great AI power comes great responsibility. As SEOs start leaning more heavily on automation and machine-assistance, we have to be hyper-vigilant about ethics:

  • Ensuring AI-generated content seamlessly blends human oversight to preserve authenticity and quality.
  • Using AI ethically to enhance and empower our own output, not simply replace human capital wholesale.
  • Leaning on AI to scale while still respecting user privacy.
  • No cutting corners or losing our way just because the technology allows for it.

There's no doubt about it: The AI revolution has only just begun disrupting SEO, keywords and content as we know it. While we don’t know exactly how the future will look, and for now, it’s best to stick to tried and tested SEO principles as these will still carry weight, staying on top of the latest SEO and AI trends will help you get ahead of the curve in the race to rank. 

Summary: it’s all in the research

Who knew keywords could require so much blood, sweat and tears, right? Bhe reality is that effective keyword research and dominating the search demand for your niche has evolved into an incredibly nuanced and sophisticated process.

It requires you to understand your audience's language, intentions and how they actually explore solutions to their problems. Only then can you create supremely aligned content experiences that drive actual business outcomes.

Fortunately, we now have access to an incredible arsenal of tools, strategies and data to streamline and scale our keyword research efforts every step of the way these days.

Keyword research is always evolving, and by staying up to date and regularly testing, you can start ranking for the keywords that make a real difference to your business.